Waiting for the Miracle: On Leonard Cohen
Waiting for the Miracle David Yaffe
"Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally." It has been more than fifteen years since Kurt Cobain groaned those words on Nirvana's final album, at a time when Cohen was on a tour that could have been his last. Cobain was 26, and with the aid of a shotgun he would soon deliver himself to his own afterworld; Cohen was 59, "just a crazy kid with a dream," as he likes to say these days. In the decade that followed, Cohen would study religious practices and retire from touring; his hair would turn a ghostly white; his longtime (and now former) manager, Kelley Lynch, would misappropriate millions of dollars from his retirement account. In 2006 Cohen filed suit against her in a Los Angeles court and won, but with payment of the $9 million settlement in limbo (Lynch has ignored the ruling and brushed off subpoenas), he decided to earn his keep by embarking on another final tour in 2008 and 2009. The Leonard Cohen Afterworld was going to happen after all. The man who had once been anointed the "prince of bummers" by The New Yorker was soon presiding over a tightly choreographed career retrospective and hopping on- and offstage with a toothy grin.
Despite his bread-and-butter motives, Cohen has approached the tour with anything but cynicism. With self-deprecating humor and septuagenarian angst, and draped in dapper men's wear, Cohen often delivers his songs on one knee, hat in hand, as if begging or sermonizing, supplicant not only to the audience and his fellow musicians but to music itself. His voice ranges from gruff crooning to keening on the lowest frequencies, and each song he sings, plucked from nearly his entire recording career, going back to 1967, is somehow about a search for beauty, for lust, for wisdom. (The two albums missing from the tour's playlist, Death of a Ladies' Man, from 1977, and Dear Heather, from 2004, perhaps journeyed too deep into the valley of sleaze to make the cut.) The songs are about making love or sitting at a master's feet--or both.
I saw Cohen from coast to coast: New York City in February, Los Angeles in April. In between I caught a performance in Claremont, California, of The Book of Longing, a 2006 collaboration between Cohen and Philip Glass that set poems of Cohen's to chilly atmospheric music. I walked out of the New York performance at the newly restored Beacon Theatre dizzy with gratitude. Cohen played for three impassioned hours; his band's musicianship was superb, and he told stellar jokes. He recited lines from selected songs, as if to emphasize that his lyrics were not merely poetic but poetry. From "Democracy": "But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags that Time cannot decay,/I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet." From "Anthem": "Ring the bells that still can ring./Forget your perfect offering./There is a crack in everything./That's how the light gets in." Garbage, music, stoicism, beauty, truth: Cohen's signature elements all linked in perfect rhyming couplets. When Cohen recited lines, he slowed down his delivery--even in a night of pop music--to allow the audience to savor every syllable. On one song, alternate lyrics for "A Thousand Kisses Deep," he drew cheers by doing nothing but recite. The audience laughed at the jokes and seemed stunned by the profundities. Live in London, a 2008 performance recorded at London's 02 Arena (where Michael Jackson was to have launched his comeback), features a set list similar to the current tour's and lots of patter almost identical to what I heard this year. Just pretend it's spontaneous.
There was a point in Cohen's life when singing in public, even talking in private, seemed impossible. It was a lull Cohen sought out and sustained through ritual and adopted practice. In the early '90s he retreated to the Mount Baldy Zen Center, where he was given the name Jikan, meaning "the silent one." On warm days in California's Inland Empire, you can see Mount Baldy's snowy summit, and Cohen was in the thick of it for five years, with his Japanese master, Kyozan Joshu Roshi, who would drink $300 bottles of scotch with his student and dispense whatever wisdom could breach the language barrier. "I not Japanese, you not Jewish," Roshi told Cohen, establishing, as an initial premise, suspended identities.
Ten New Songs, from 2001, was the first album Cohen released after descending from the mountain. Its lead track, "In My Secret Life," hinted at the vibe of the afterworld to come, which when staged in 2008 would command four-figure prices on eBay for tickets to sold-out venues. On "In My Secret Life," Cohen whittled down his lyrics to essential phrases and his voice to a droning lower baritone, creating a Tibetan throat singer oration that is the polar opposite of an operatic upward trill:
I bite my lip.
I buy what I'm told:
From the latest hit,
To the wisdom of old.
The trajectory between the latest hit and the wisdom of old is a long one, and Cohen prolongs it, especially in performances, by singing "ooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhld," as if old age is something that might last a very long time. "I was born like this, I had no choice./I was born with the gift of a golden voice," Cohen explains in "The Tower of Song," and while he was singing from an imagined posthumous position when he recorded the tune in his early 50s in 1988, he had grown into it by the time he was performing the song for adoring crowds in 2008 and 2009. Every time he sang it, especially the line "I was born with the gift of a golden voice," he was rewarded with a huge cheer. (During the Mount Baldy scotch sessions, Roshi, who was in his 90s, would say, "Excuse me for not dying." Cohen says he now feels this way himself.) "I'm turning tricks, I'm getting fixed,/I'm back on Boogie Street," he sang on "A Thousand Kisses Deep" when he had taken up speaking and singing again. If he only knew.